Thursday, May 31, 2012

Flick of the Day: Badlands

One of cinema's true auteur's, Terrence Malick has directed 5 features in nearly 40 years as film-maker with a 20 year hiatus between his second film Days of Heaven in 1978 and 1998's WW2 epic The Thin Red Line for good measure. His work has a tendency toward emphasising the stark beauty of the natural world over the flawed nature of human beings and sparse dialogue. Today's flick of the day is his remarkably self assured début Badlands, based loosely on the 1958 murder spree of Charles Starkweather.
Narrated by Holly, played by a very young Sissy Spacek, a young girl who lives with her violent and overbearing father in small town America in the 1950s. One day she meets and ultimately falls in love with rebellious loner Kit, played by the always superb Martin Sheen. Her father, played by Warren Oates perhaps one of the terminally underrated actors of his generation, attempts to drive them apart so in a cold manner Kit shoots him and together the pair hit the road. As they cross the empty plains of the Dakota's, Holly narrates their story like some poetic love story while Kit leaves bodies in his wake everywhere they go. Holly's flowery narration is in stark contrast to the murderous Kit and the beautiful visuals of the American midwest. Eventually their murderous actions lead to a fitting denouement.
While the actions of Kit and Holly are dealt with in a casual manner, Malick is careful never to glamorise them or their predicament but there is no moral judgement. There is also no sensationalism which is something many directors would surely have surrendered themselves to. If anything the film is low-key in dealing with its murderous pair. Malick offers no explanation for their actions and it is tempting to believe from Sheen's bravura performance that it is out of boredom and adolescent ennui as anything else. 
Along with Malick's fantastic visual style, the real star of the film is Martin Sheen. His film is perfectly measured, capturing the studied attempt at James Dean rebellious cool that is Kit. Kit is so busy trying to look cool that he doesn't seem to have time to feel emotions like a normal being. Indeed his cold demeanour is chilling in its way just because of its banality and very much a counterpoint to the girlish naivety of Spacek's Holly. 
Badlands is Malick's best film perhaps because it manages to catch the right balance between the quiet beauty of his visual impulses and narrative tedium, something which could not be said for 2005's The New World, perhaps the dullest couple of hours I have spent in front of a screen. Made for less than $500,000 in 1973 after Malick had spent one year at film school it stands out today for its style, performances and elegiac beauty and as such is one of the defining films of its generation. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Flick of the Day: Robin Hood Prince of Thieves

It can often be a fool's errand to revisit the things you loved from your childhood. For whatever reason, you can never really go back and enjoy the pastimes of your youth with the same level of engrossment. Very often, you find that the films, music, books and games and other elements of pop culture were not as good as you had thought at the time and worse than that you tarnish the memory of what they meant to you. Myself, well I can quite vividly remember singing Bryan Adams hit "Everything I do (I do it for you)" over the end credits of today's flick of the day in the Adelphi cinema in Dublin in 1991. As a child it was my favourite movie and this never seemed to diminish with another viewing. Suffice as to say, it is many years since I have sat down and watched it and for all that I have just said, I was tempted back into the Sherwood Forest of my youth where Robin Hood had an American accent and the Sheriff of Nottingham was a wondrously camp version of Hans Gruber from Die Hard. Today's flick of the day is the immortal Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
We meet our titular hero, played with cocksure abandon by a Kevin Costner at the height of his powers, in the cells of a Jerusalem prison after his capture during the last crusade of Richard the Lionheart, King of England. In a dashing escape he befriends and saves the life of a Muslim prisoner named Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman who indebted with his lie, vows to return to England with Robin. While Robin is making his way home, we learn that his father played by of all people Brian Blessed, has been murdered by the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham. Nottingham is a wonderful over the top turn from Alan Rickman whose characterisation is a joy to behold throughout. Before long Robin arrives back on the shores of Dover and in an interesting geographical twist arrives in Nottingham not long thereafter.Befriending the lovely maid Marian, he vows revenge on his father's killer.
There is much here which the hip cynical twenty something in us all could find fault with not least Costner's inability to attempt an English accent, the appearance of Christian Slater as Will Scarlet and an ability to play fast and loose with both history and geography however for me, this is as enjoyable a romp as I once believed it to be. All of the leads give strong performances in a feel good adventure movie sense and in Rickman's Sheriff, the film has one of the most entertaining and scene stealing performances ever. Rickman portrays the villain as a buffoonish prig filled with pithy one liners. It is a delight.

[the Sheriff has said he'll cut out Robin Hood's heart with a spoon

Guy of Gisborne: Why a spoon, cousin? Why not an axe? 

Sheriff of Nottingham: Because it's DULL, you twit. It'll hurt more. 
Apart from this, the film delivers some great action scenes and successfully builds the tension as the film wears on and Robin is forced into a final confrontation with the dastardly Sheriff.
So then Robin Hood Prince of Thieves is that rare treat (from my perspective anyway), a childhood film which is as enjoyable 20 years later as it was on release. Sure it is over the top and glossy but it is just too much fun not to get dragged in. In comparison to the decidedly po-faced Russell Crowe version from 2010, this will have you cheering Robin on at the end and perhaps even singing along to Bryan Adams as well.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Raid: Redemption

According to Homer Simpson "Everybody knows Rock achieved perfection in 1974". Whatever about the truth of Homer's assertion, everybody knows that the action genre reached its high point with the release in 1988 of John McTiernan's Die Hard. Since then there have been derivatives, there have been sequels and there  have been high concept action pictures galore along with the usual direct to DVD tripe starring the fallen idols and the never been but along the way the genre has become moribund and worst of all dull. Perhaps today's flick of the day is redemption then in the unlikely form of an Indonesian film directed by a Welshman Gareth Evans, The Raid.
In the slums of Jakarta, there is a 12 storey building controlled by a ruthless gang lord. On the orders of the higher ups, a 20 man Swat team begin a dawn raid on the building with the aim of taking down the bad guys. Of course as is so often the case with these things, their arrival is expected and they quickly become bogged down and the body count rises. In some spectacular action scenes, the remaining members of the team must fight their way through 15 floors to get their man and escape with their lives. There are a few twists along the way but ultimately it is one extended battle. Each of the characters brings their own baggage, the leader Rama has a pregnant wife at home and a brother he hasn't seen in years while the gang lord Tama has bought every cop in town to keep himself safe.
No discussion of this film would be complete without noting the incredible level of violence that prevails throughout. Much like the hardbitten action cinema coming out of South Korea and Hong Kong over the last few years, this films wears its lust for blood on its sleeve. In general I am not a fan of excessive violence unless it forms a necessary part of the tale and in this case it does. Whereas the likes of Drive are violent for no apparent reason other than some pretentious commentary on society, The Raid is a violent tale of violent men and all the better for it.
The real strength of the film is the choreography of its fight scenes. Incredible isn't the word, I have seen nothing like it. One particularly gruelling scene climaxed to cheers and applause in the cinema where I saw it. Fast paced and balletic, they are gripping throughout. The film has been a real audience winner wherever it has appeared, winning the audience award at the recent Dublin International Film Festival. There is not much else that can be added really. It's stupid, violent and a lot of fun. After  the last few years, it may just be the shot in the arm, the action genre needed. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Long Good Friday

One of the all time greats of British cinema, Bob Hoskins was a relative latecomer to acting not garnering his first screen credit till age 30. Over the years he has developed a reputation for being a hard working character with an eye for a gritty role. Perhaps his breakthrough role and certainly one of his best was as London gangster Harold Shand in today's flick of the day, The Long Good Friday.
Playing on many of the fears of the general populace in late 70's Great Britain, John Mackenzie's film is built around a single weekend in the life of old style gangster Harold Shand. Shand is an ordinary decent criminal who doesn't deal in narcotics and using his control of the London underworld for leverage he is attempting that most difficult of cinematic clichés, to go legitimate. In this vein, he has a grand plan in mind involving a corrupt local councillor and a massive development of the then derelict docklands area of the city all financed by American mob money. To impress his American counterparts, he has pulled out all the stops for their weekend visit with a grand reception aboard his yacht all coordinated by his steely eyed wife Victoria played by that other British institution Helen Mirren and his top lieutenant Jeff. However all is not well, for reasons unknown to Harold, somebody is attempting to put him out of business permanently as a spate of bombings and killings hit his empire. As the weekend progresses, Harold struggles to hold his deal together and keep his empire in tact while getting to the bottom of this mysterious vendetta.
From the minute the classic theme tune by Francis Monkman starts up, this excellent thriller goes off at a great pace and never lets up till its denouement outside the Savoy Hotel. A classic of the genre, it blends a great performance from Hoskins as Shand with an intricate plot which combines police corruption, gun running and the IRA to illustrate the changing face of a city and its criminal element. This rich plot and the suspense which John Mackenzie manages to build with each scene are a joy to behold.
Harold: Who's having a go at me? Can you think of anyone who might have an old score to settle or something? Razors: Who's big enough to take you on? Harold: Well, there were a few. Razors: Like who? Harold: Yeah, they're all dead. 
It is is difficult to overstate how much Hoskins carries the film. It is a bravura performance in which he almost revels in the east end mannerisms and speech patterns of Shand and creates a character that is both endearing and misanthropic. He is joined in this by some great character actors who if you have any knowledge of British TV will have you thinking "I know that face" including a turn as "1st Irishman" from an impossibly young Pierce Brosnan.
In spite of all these great performances, the film was almost never released and even than only had a limited run on its release in 1980. Produced for less than £1m and financed by Lew Grade's production company for transmission on the ITV network, it's supposed glorification of the IRA angered Grade and the film was to be heavily edited before George Harrison's Handmade Films came to the rescue and brought the picture for less than the cost of making it while financing a cinema release.
Given the difficulty the British film industry has had in the last three decade of producing commercial mainstream cinema at a profit, for such a great film to be so shabbily dealt with is incredible but not unexpected. In any case, the film was critically lauded when it eventually made it in into the big bad world and Bob Hoskins would go on to forge a solid career in Hollywood.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Flick of the Day: Calm At Sea / Das Meer Am Morgen

Today’s flick of the day is a quiet and affecting drama based on a real life event during the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War. Premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, Volker Schlondorff’s German-French co production was screened yesterday as the opening film of the IFI’s German Film Week, marking a welcome return to the capital of a contemporary German film festival for the first time in four years. Details regarding the remaining films can be found here.

Opening in a French prison camp in 1941, Calm at Sea tells a dark tale from the rich tapestry of dark tales that was the German occupation of mainland Europe during the war. We are introduced to an impossibly young French student named Guy played by Leo-Paul Salmain. He has recently been interned at the camp for supposedly being a troublemaker. He spends his days trying to impress the girls on the other side of the fence, specifically the girl of his dreams Odette while conversing with his fellow inmates who are mainly staunch communists with an intellectual bent. They play boules, box and smoke and all is well. Unfortunately for them, the resistance fighters on the outside are stepping up their attacks against the German occupiers. This leads to the assassination of the German Commander of the town of Nantes for which the Fuhrer demands that 150 French prisoners be executed as a reprisal. Despite the best efforts of the administrators and the cowardice of the French collaborators, the men of Guy’s camp are selected for execution by firing squad.

The film then follows this event with an excruciating level of detail to give the film an almost documentary feel. We learn of the various heart-breaking chances which might have allowed some of the men to escape such as the boy who was due to be released the next day and has to be dragged from his wife’s arms to be shot. Ultimately however, this is a tale of woe. The men go to their fates with their head held high and the script attempts to portray the events as a turning point in the relationship between the people of occupied France and the Nazi administration and perhaps it was but it makes for poor drama.
Where the film shines is in its emotional punch. It would be a hard hearted man who would not feel for these men who even the German officers would admit have done nothing wrong. They are simply facing the wrath of a tyrant and a regime which would go down in history as one of the most monstrous.
The largely French cast give believable turns as the prisoners and the villainous German’s are suitably catty. All in all, this is an important film in terms of documenting this horrific event but perhaps could been dealt with by a documentary rather than a drama given the lack of real drama. We know what will happen to them with about 30 minutes remaining and the film falls away.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Flick of The Day: Once

With the news earlier this week that the Broadway adaptation of John Carney's Once had been nominated for 11 Tony Awards, it felt like just the right time to revisit the original film which garnered such praise and a richly deserved Oscar win for Glen Hansard's music. Shot on a budget of €150,000 and financed by the Irish Film Board, it is a romantic tale of music and the bonds it forms between people and perhaps more than that a time capsule of Dublin at the height of the Celtic tiger boom.
A Dublin busker player by Hansard splits his time between helping out in his father's vacuum repair shop and practising and playing his own songs on Grafton street. One day he meets a young immigrant played by Marketa Irglova who makes her living selling flowers and cleaning houses. She quizzes him about his songs and who he wrote them for and he offers to fix her broken vacuum cleaner. Before long we learn that our guy had his heart broken by his ex-girlfriend and has lived with his father since the death of his mother the previous year. The girl is separated from her Czech husband and lives with her young daughter and mother in a small flat in Mountjoy Square on the city's north side. They bond through their love of music and the girl urges the guy to take his music to a wider audience. A small simple tale of the once in a lifetime meeting between two people who catch each other at just the right time.
There is an almost fairytale quality to this film telling as it does the tale of off chance meeting between two unnamed people on the streets of Ireland's capital. John Carney's sparse script is a love story that doesn't rely on the usual tropes of the genre but rather builds itself around the song writing ability of Glen Hansard. This is an inspired decision for Hansard is one of the most talented and least appreciated Irish songwriters of the last 20 years. It is criminal that he has not had the critical success of his contemporaries and yet perhaps this is his just desserts. Once brought his work to a much wider audience, earned him an Academy Award with Marketa Irglova and opened up a world of opportunities including opening for Eddie Vedder on his current tour.
It is six years since the film was shot on a shoestring over the course of 19 days in Dublin and even in that limited timespan, this feels like a timepiece. Shot at the height of the boom years when the sight of new immigrants coming to Dublin was a common one, the direction of migration has very much reversed with the downturn. Despite the fact that neither Hansard and Irglova are trained actors, they deliver believable and measured performances throughout, inhabiting roles that are made for them.
This really is a gem of a movie. It is simple, sweet and and to the point and delivers a memorable tale of romance in modern times while the musicianship of Hansard and Irglova carry the film over the line. A musical for people who don't like musicals.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Flick of The Day: Mary and Max

From strange beginnings can great things grow. At first glance a claymation adaptation of the true life pen pal relationship between an obese middle aged New Yorker and a lonely young girl from the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia would not seem like a promising idea for a film. However, in the hands of Australian animator Adam Elliott it becomes a truly ground breaking piece of cinema. Today's flick of the day is Mary & Max.
In 1976, a young girl named Mary, voiced by Toni Collette struggles with loneliness due to her alcoholic mother and emotionally absent father. One day on a trip to the post office, she picks a name from the New York phone directory and decides to write to them. Her letter reaches Max Horowitz voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a 44 year old Jewish man who struggles with obesity and Asperger's syndrome. Amazingly, these two misanthropes who live on the margins of their own society find in each other a friend with which to converse and share their doubts, worries and neuroses and love of chocolate over the course of 20 years. Where they initially appear as oddballs and outsiders, we gradually see that both are perceptive and aware of the world around them and perhaps more importantly far nicer human beings than those supposedly normal folk.
A work of incredible depth and emotional maturity, it transcends its genre to tell a tale that everyone should know. It is not a happy story and not for children but it is a worthy one all the same. Rarely have issues such as mental illness, loneliness and isolation been dealt with in such a mature manner in a piece of cinema. It's a dark and beautiful picture and one will surely be left with a lot to think over for having seen it.
While the animation is the star of the show, the voice work is excellent throughout. Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman are unrecognisable in their voice characters and perhaps that is as it should be. While the film shows a bleak view of the world, it is this bleakness which gives it such an emotional punch and it is perhaps closer to the reality of many lives than we dare to admit. The relationship between the two allows Mary to open up to the world, indeed the animation noticeably brightens as her own confidence improves while Max finds that which he has sought all his life, a friend.
Overall then this is a triumph of a film with a deep message about what friendship means. As the film notes at its close "God gave us relatives, thank God we can choose our friends".

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